Tales from the vault

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The Elgin House Hotel by Stan Nowak

This  article was first published in the November 23, 2007 edition of the Dundas Star News.                                                                                                                                                                                       John Rolph twoThe Hotel opened on the last evening of November 1837, with a superb banquet in the Great Room. Dr. John Rolph, Member of Parliament for Norfolk County and well-known radical Reformer was the keynote speaker. Dr. Rolph’s brother, George, a prominent Dundas landowner, was in attendance, as was former Dundas resident, William Lyon Mackenzie.  (Ironically, one week later, both Dr. Rolph and Mackenzie would be fugitives from the law as leaders of the unsuccessful Rebellion of 1837. Mackenzie’s escape route would lead through Dundas on his successful flight to the United States).Willaim Lyon MacKenzie - two


Notable personalities from Niagara, Simcoe, Galt, Guelph, and York were invited to the grand feast celebrating the grand opening of the new Elgin House Hotel on King Street in Dundas.

Being a fiercely-proud Scotsman, it was only fitting that the hotel owner and proprietor, William McDonnell, would plan the event on November 30—St. Andrew’s Day.

William McDonnell was a resourceful, self-educated farmer who arrived in Dundas in 1823. By 1837, he was the bartender at the Buck’s Head Inn, and ran a thriving store in town as well. His commercial and financial success enabled him to buy property on the south side of King Street to build a hotel of his own.

Elgin House one

The Elgin House was the first major building constructed in the flourishing period of economic prosperity following the opening of the Desjardins Canal. It was considered the finest hotel west of York (although there weren’t too many hotels west of York at the time).    It was brick-built, with rough stone end and back walls. It was three storeys high (later raised to four in 1875), with forty rooms. Four wide brownstone steps lead to the front door. The arched recess, through which horses and stages were driven to the stables at the rear, followed through a long arched carriageway that passed right through the building from front to rear. The front arch had a capstone with the wording “Wm. McDonnell 1837” cut into it.


On September 14, 1861, a large fire which consumed most of Dundas destroyed the outlying buildings of the Elgin House and almost burned down the hotel as well. The fire started at 11:00 a.m. and blazed well into the next morning, destroying most of the buildings in the eastern part of town. A grateful William McDonnell gave free beer to all the men who helped save his hotel, and gave a substantial financial donation to the local Volunteer Fire Fighting Company.Elgin House two

The Elgin House Hotel resumed business and continued to provide the finest accommodation to travelers while their horses were pampered in the rear stables, and were fed the best hay and oats by the most attentive and compassionate hostlers.


William McDonnell ran the hotel until his death in 1871. In 1875, the building was purchased by R. T. Wilson, a Dundas businessman who ran the Elgin House as a hotel until 1885. During its life as a hotel, the Elgin also housed other businesses and establishments as tenants.

In 1885, both the Public Library and Post Office required more office space, so Mr. Wilson got out of the hotel business and used the Elgin building for office space thereafter.

By 1886, the Elgin House was fully renovated for commercial use, and would never be used as a hotel again.

The construction of the Elgin House hotel signified a major switch in commercial emphasis in Dundas from Main Street to King Street, and provided an anchor for the western end of downtown Dundas.

While, there is not much evidence that this building once served as the finest hotel west of Toronto, it has been restored to viable commercial use with apartment housing on the second and third floors. This major landmark continues to serve Dundas well, although its Victorian ground floor facade has been destroyed—except for the front curved archway with the capstone that still reads “Wm. McDonnell 1837”.




T. R. Woodhouse “Caught The Bug”by Stan Nowak

This article was first published in the May 14th, 2004 edition of the Dundas Star News. Reproduced with permission of the author.
Thomas Roy Woodhouse once warned, “Never get bitten by the historical bug or you’re a goner”. Mr. Woodhouse first caught ‘the bug’ at the Bell Telephone Company, where he worked. He was asked to research some of the company’s history, and he was ‘a goner’ for the rest of his life. His passion led him to help establish five historical societies, including the first Dundas Historical Society.
He was also president of the Ontario, Head-of-the-Lake and the Dundas Historical Societies, as well as honorary president of the Ancaster Historical Society.
Soon after Mr. Woodhouse was born on December 30, 1892, his father died. Roy’s family lived in Dundas, but when his mother remarried, he moved to Westdale and lived there for the rest of his life, but he never forgot his Dundas roots.
From 1910, Mr. Woodhouse worked with the Bell Telephone Company, eventually retiring in 1956 as plant engineer in charge of the design of poles, wires, cables and conduits in the Niagara Peninsula. For three years, he was also supervisor of training for all telephone engineers in Ontario. His service with Bell was interrupted between 1916 and 1919, when he served in the military during World War I, first with the 205th Machine Gun Battalion, Hamilton, and later
with the 164th Engineers Battalion. He later wrote, “My service was fairly uneventful. The big thing I learned was never to volunteer for anything.” It’s a good thing he never took that lesson to heart.
On April 12, 1945, the Dundas Historical Society, which he co-founded, held its inaugural meeting and he was appointed to its first Council as Historian. He also gave an address on “Early History of Dundas and Vicinity”. Some of the crème de la crème of Dundas society with names like Bertram, Grafton, Pirie, Lennard, and Bain sat on that first council.
One of the objectives of the Historical Society was ‘to stimulate interest in local history’. It was in this ‘stimulation of interest’ that Roy Woodhouse excelled. His body of written work contains countless articles and publications, the most well known in Dundas being “The History of the Town of Dundas” trilogy written between 1965 and 1968, and “The Birth of the Town of Dundas”, published in 1951.
He also contributed to publications of other Historical Societies, such as the “Wentworth Bygones” periodicals of the Head-of-the-Lake Society.
Another aim of the new society was to collect, store, and preserve historic material, and to provide for its accessibility to the general public. On April 21, 1956, under the sponsorship of the Historical Society, and the exceptional work of H. Graham Bertram and Mr. Woodhouse, that objective was fulfilled when the Dundas Historical Society Museum was officially opened to the public to assure the safe management of our historical artifacts for future generations.
Today, the Museum stands as a modern day monument to the Dundas citizens who desired to preserve the story of the Dundas community. Roy Woodhouse is gone, having died in June 1978, and the first Historical Society itself has faded into history. For at least a generation, there has been no Historical Society in Dundas.
Since November 2002, a committee of dedicated individuals has been working diligently towards the birth of a new Historical Society for Dundas, to be called the “Dundas Valley Historical Society”. Next Wednesday, May 19, history will be made as the DVHS holds its first Annual General Meeting at the Dundas Museum starting at 7:30 PM. Among the items on the agenda will be the ratification of the society constitution and the election of the first council.
All Dundas residents and local history aficionados are invited to join and participate in the new Society. Catch ‘the bug’ like Roy Woodhouse did so many years ago—and become a part of history.

Storm of 1915 Altered Dundas Topography As Well As History

by Stan Nowak
This article was first published in the August 13, 2003 edition of the Dundas Star News. Reproduced with permission of the author.

The Town Dam strained against the incredible stress of the water in the basin, which was overflowing from the torrential downpour of the day before. Finally, the southern abutment of the dam gave way, and the headwaters broke free and sped at a furious rate down Spencer Creek.Ewart's Dam two

The dam had failed again. It had supplied power for the various mills located along Spencer Creek for 116 years. But, after that storm of August 3, 1915, after countless repairs following countless storms, the dam had failed for the last time. The dam was first built in 1799, or perhaps earlier, across Spencer Creek just west of today’s MacMurray Street, and was purchased and enlarged by Richard Hatt in 1804 for his Dundas Mills.

After Hatt’s death in 1819, the dam was utilized by James Bell Ewart, fortified again, and became known as Ewart’s Dam until his death in 1853.website (51)

In its heyday in the mid-1800s, it produced up to 200 hp a day for six to nine months of any given year. From 1853 to 1857, the dam was exploited by the various mill owners.

Ewart's Dam one

It got into a bad state of repair, however, and it became “the general opinion that the free flow of water made it impossible to keep bridge abutments on the stream, and there was quite an agitation for the town to take over the dam” (Dundas Star, August 5, 1915).

After yet another washout, the Town took over the dam in 1897. It became a white elephant for Dundas, costing a lot more than it was earning. From 1897 to 1915, the town spent $11,207.20 on maintaining the dam, while it earned roughly just over $300 per year, or $5,400 for the same time period.

With electricity becoming available at cheap rates, the dam fell into disuse. The Town, constantly debating what to do with the dam, had its problem solved when Mother Nature wiped it out for good, and it was never rebuilt.

The basin contained by the dam, though not an official recreation area had provided Dundas residents with swimming in the summer, and ice-skating in the winter. It was in this basin that curling was first introduced in Dundas. Dundas Resident Elwood Hughes learned how to skate on the frozen basin and became a Canadian ice-skating champion and record holder around 1915–1920.

Soon after the final collapse of the dam, the demise of the basin followed, and Dundas’ topography was altered forever. Today, the basin is filled in and the site is occupied by the Grightmire Arena, the Garstin Centre for the Arts, the Dundas Community Pool, and the parking lot that services them all. The Spencer Creek still flows by, just as it has for centuries.

There are, however, no remnants of what was once the mightiest dam on Spencer Creek.


by Stan Nowak with special thanks to Clare Crozier
This article was first published January 9th, 2004 in the Dundas Star News. Reproduced with permission of the author.

Since this article was written in 2004, the Post Office has been sold, rejuvenated, tenanted and the clocks have, once again, been made operational!

 As I write this, I look out my window and see the peak of the old Post Office clock tower one block away. The clock dial that faces me is clearly visible in the late afternoon sun. I decide to go for a walk and take a closer look at it. As I approach the tower, I can appreciate the impressive architecture of the building as well as the tower.

Clock tower - one

The clock sits 100 feet above King Street in the tower of the old Dundas Post Office on 104 King Street West. It has been here for 90 years. The time reads 4:05—at least the side facing King Street does. The other three sides read different times ranging from 3:35 to 4:10. It is obvious that the old clock is not workingClock tower - two.


In 1909, the federal government purchased the property, formerly the ‘Campbell Block’, and built the Post Office, which also housed the Customs Office. The official opening was on October 30, 1913. The new building was a Romanesque facade, which was dominated by the Venetian clock tower.

The clock was manufactured by J. Smith and Sons, Midland Clock Works of Derby, England. The bell that tolled each hour was built by John Taylor of Loughborough, England. It struck on the hour, 24 times per day by a hammer which was powered by a counterweight.

Each clock face is six feet in diameter. The hour hand is two feet, six inches in length, and the minute hand is three feet, six inches. It had a pendulum which swung on a wooden handle connected to the clock by a strip of spring steel 25/1000 of an inch thick. During the period when the clock was working, the caretaker of the Post Office wound the clock manually once every six days. He lived in an apartment on the third floor of the Post Office.

Dundas Post Office ClockThe clock ceased to keep time properly, and was restored after a decade of silence in 1979 when the Post Office was completely rebuilt. This clock was wound once a month and struck on the hour. Sometime after 1980, the clock stopped working. Exactly when and why, I’m not sure. If any reader out there can enlighten me, please let me know at basil.cottage@sympatico.ca., or through the Dundas Star News.

Today, the clock is still, the pendulum swings no more, and the bell no longer tolls. The building itself is a ghostly trace of its former self. But the noble Venetian tower, even with the still-life clock, is still a majestic feature in the streetscape of downtown Dundas today.




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